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Bandits, FireWolves Take 1-0 Series Leads in NLL Semifinals

The NLL Semifinals began on Friday night, with the Buffalo Bandits visiting the Toronto Rock and the Albany FireWolves making the long cross-country journey to San Diego. Which teams took the first meetings of the best-of-three series? Read on to find out.


The Bandits Run Circles Around the Beleaguered Rock

The NLL’s greatest rivalry took center stage in the opening game of the Semifinals round as the defending champion Buffalo Bandits made the 65-mile (106km) trek to downtown Hamilton for a showdown with the Toronto Rock, owners of the league’s best regular season record. 

May 3, 2024; Hamilton, Ontario, CAN; Buffalo Bandits Ian MacKay #4 celebrates scoring against the Toronto Rock at FirstOntario Place . Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-NLL

What looked to be a very even battle on paper shook out in quite the opposite fashion, as the Bandits ran roughshod over the Rock 12-4. Buffalo cruised to a 5-0 halftime lead, with the second half serving as a non-competitive bridge to Sunday’s Game 2. Everything went Buffalo’s way on Friday, including a second quarter Chris Cloutier goal that occurred seconds after Tom Schreiber and his Toronto teammates thought they had connected on a successful score. It was just that kind of night for the home club.

The Bandits’ defense was downright stellar, with veteran goaltender Matt Vinc getting his frame in the way of 53 out of the 57 blasts rocketed his direction. The legendary goalie’s exploits were complemented beautifully by the team’s rough and tumble defenders, a group that knocked down a whopping 11 shot attempts.

Buffalo head coach John Tavares was overjoyed with the play of the guys tasked with stopping the Rock’s vaunted offense from finding that spark.

“Matt was phenomenal. Our team starts with him and ends with him. He was a brick wall tonight,” explained Tavares. “When you have players making saves and your goalie making saves it makes it a lot more challenging to score goals.”

Check out Vinc’s best work here:

For his part, Rock head coach Matt Sawyer acknowledged his team’s difficulty getting anything going offensively, a scenario that featured multiple transition goals for the victorious Bandits. Simply stated, Toronto looked nothing like a 15-win regular season juggernaut. 

“You need to protect and value the ball so it doesn’t go the other way. Very uncharacteristic of us, based on how we played to this point in the season, but that was us tonight, which was disappointing,” shared Swayer.

The franchises traverse back over the Canada/US border for a Game 2 battle on Sunday at 5:30 p.m., a game that can be seen on TSN, TSN+, ESPNU and ESPN+. The Rock are suddenly dealing with their first bit of true adversity this season, with the challenge made that much more difficult when considering that the Bandits are now winners of five straight in present day, amid owning a seven-game playoff winning streak versus Toronto. 

Despite the difficult road that now lies ahead, Rock captain Challen Rogers still sees the glass as half full heading into the Buffalo portion of the series. 

“We are still a very confident group,” he said. “I know it doesn’t seem so after a showing like that. You look at our record and we have answered the bell after losses. We’re still confident and think we can get a big W on Sunday and bring this series back here.”


Alex Simmons Conquers the City of San Diego

The second Semifinals’ series debuted a brief 10-minute drive from the Pacific Ocean, where the NLL franchise representing “Fightertown USA” hosted the squad from the state capital of New York. When the dust settled, the Albany FireWolves departed Pechanga Arena winners of a 14-12 triumph over the San Diego Seals. Albany’s rookie sensation Alex Simmons was downright absurd on this night, posting five goals and five assists, tying Bandits’ coach/hall of fame player John Tavares for the most playoff points by a first-year player in a single playoff game. Simmons’ third quarter scoring trifecta was integral in his team’s ability to pull this one out. 

Albany Firebirds v. San Diego Seals 05–03-2024 Semifinals – Game 1 Alex Simmons

The University of Denver/Syracuse alum did not feel it necessary to overanalyze his innate ability to connect a lacrosse ball with the back of a lacrosse net when chatting with reporters after the final horn sounded. 

“They were giving me an opportunity to shoot the ball and when I shot the ball it found the net. There was no secret sauce to it,” he said.

While Simmons shone as the absolute brightest light on the marquee, the 25-year-old was all about team when providing his assessment of the action.

“Our offense was clicking,” praised Simmons. “We stuck to our game plan to swing the ball a lot and get in the goal early. I thought our defense was phenomenal. Dougie (Jamieson) kept us in the game like he has all year. It was an exciting building, a great game and we loved being a part of it. Now we just want to close this out on Sunday.”

Check out Simmons’ highlights:

Simmons’ exploits were supplemented by teammates Ethan Walker and Tye Kurtz, who combined for three scores and nine helpers. Nathan Grenon added two goals to bolster the Albany attack.

The Seals wrap up Game 1 disappointed yet optimistic, losing a tough game at home, while turning what looked to be a blowout into a near-miracle comeback. The number two seed secured four rapid fire fourth quarter goals, cutting the deficit to one before a Colton Watkinson empty netter iced it for the FireWolves.

Albany Firebirds v. San Diego Seals 05–03-2024 Semifinals – Game 1 Patrick Kaschalk, Matt Sykes

Seals’ head coach Patrick Merrill hopes the beginning of Game 2 more strongly resembles the conclusion of Game 1.

“We didn’t start playing with a sense of urgency until it was too late. We just ran out of time.”

The San Diego coach/GM later expressed, “taking some momentum from how we played at the end of the game shows that were never out of the fight.”

The leader of the Seals’ offensive assault was Curtis Dickson, whose four goals moves him to third on the all-time playoff scoring list. Like his head coach, the British Columbia native stressed the importance of avoiding a game that necessitates a furious comeback as the clock clicks towards zero. 

“We have a little bit of momentum heading into next game,” Dickson said. “At the same time, we played 53 minutes of pretty poor lacrosse. We need to figure out what we did right, what we did wrong and come out a heck of a lot more ready to play the next game.”

Saturday, both the FireWolves and Seals boarded transcontinental flights for Sunday’s Game 2 in Albany. Game time is 3 p.m. ET on ESPNU, ESPN+ and TSN+.